Listen to Your Body?

   When my son Max (who is now 4) was about 2 years old, he began asking me during mealtime:”can I be done?” At first, I’d just asked him if he’d had enough, and if he said “yes,” I’d let him leave the table. However, he soon began asking “can I be done?” after the first or second bite; and he would get annoyed if I asked him to eat a little more. He later began asking, “how many bites do I have to take before I can be done?” Mealtimes quickly stopped being enjoyable because he only seemed to want to get back to playing instead of taking the time to eat and enjoy his food; and I didn’t feel comfortable insisting that he eat a certain number of bites or offering him more tasty (and usually more unhealthy) food choices as substitutes for what I’d prepared. It didn’t feel natural to me, and went against the philosophy I believed in before he was old enough to eat.

   Before I began feeding him solids, I had a picture in my mind of how I wanted him to eat. I wanted him to be able to follow his own hunger and fullness signals, and I wanted to have a relaxed attitude around food – not forcing him to eat things he didn’t like, and also not putting any “unhealthy” foods off limits; but I also wanted to offer him healthy choices for the most part and have structure around his meal and snack times.  I quickly learned that teaching a child to rely on his own hunger and fullness signals is more complex than I thought it would be.  

    When mealtimes became a struggle, I decided to start talking to Max about how to “listen to his body” (my husband jokingly made fun of me for using this phrase, but I thought the phrase brought the concept down to a child’s level).  “What is your body telling you, Max?” I would ask when he would ask me how many more bites he had to take. “Does your stomach feel empty, like it has a little food in it, or like it is tight and full?”  I tried to teach him to notice sensations that would signal that he still needed to eat more or that he’d had enough, in hopes that he could make a wise choice about how many more bites to take. Quite frankly, this didn’t work, and it became rather comical. Max would say he was full when the foods offered were not his favorites, and he would say he was still hungry even after eating plenty of his favorite foods.  A conversation could have gone something like this:

(Max eating soup and crackers)
Max: “How many bites do I have to take before I can be done?”
Me: “Well, Max, why don’t you listen to your body and see what it’s telling you.”
Max: “My body says I’m done.”
Me:  “But you’ve only eaten two bites. I think you need to eat some more so that you won’t be hungry at nap time and you will have energy for the rest of the day.”
Max:  “My body says ‘stop eating soup! stop eating soup!'”

(Max eating chocolate cake)
Max:  “Can I have some more cake?”

Me: “Max, you’ve already had a big piece, why don’t you listen to your body and see what it’s telling you.” 
Max: “My body says ‘more cake, more cake!'” 

     As funny as these statements are coming from a 2-year-old, it actually provides an unfiltered look at our brain’s primitive pleasure center and how it influences food intake. 

     Palatability usually overrides satiety, so that even if we are physically full, we still want to continue eating a highly pleasurable food (hence, “my body says ‘more cake, more cake!'”). And unless we are famished, lack of palatabilty can override hunger (hence, “my body says ‘stop eating soup!'”)  A 2-year-old doesn’t have enough higher brain power to always override these primitive, pleasure-seeking brain signals. Neither does a 5-year-old, a 10-year-old, or a 15-year-old, and even adults with fully developed higher brain centers have trouble resisting tempting food (in the most extreme cases, this takes the form of binge eating).  

     I think it is highly unfair to kids when their parents keep the house stocked with extremely pleasurable/sugar-laden foods, and let them have free reign of it. They aren’t always going to make a choice to stop when their brains’ say “more sweets, more sweets.”  My experience with Max led me to believe that childhood obesity is partially due to parents letting their kids “listen to their bodies” too much in an environment filled with sugary foods.  Their bodies are very survival and pleasure oriented, and although they may not binge, they will often reach for the sweets over the healthy choices.           

    I still want Max to learn to listen to his body, but I also want him to know that he must think too. Now that he is a bit older, I have explained to him that when we eat desert and sugary foods, sometimes our bodies don’t tell us to stop even when we are full (and it’s possible that Max has genes like me that make him susceptible *not destined!* to overeat pleasurable foods). I sometimes set limits on how much desert he can have, and even if he says “my body says more,” I have to tell him no. I try to get him involved in something else so he stops focusing on his desire for more; and sure enough, within a couple minutes he always forgets about the food.  I want to teach him that we can’t have everything we desire, and sometimes doing the right thing means temporarily feeling deprived of pleasure (we can’t mistake pleasure for happiness).        

    One day, when his higher brain centers are developed, I hope this lesson will stick: You don’t always have to listen to your body and brain when you know (with your higher brain centers) that what it’s telling you to do is not right or good for you. This lesson doesn’t only apply to eating pleasurable foods, but to anything that involves a healthy dose of self-control.         

   On the flip side, I’m also trying to teach him that just because some foods don’t taste great (like vegetables, in his opinion), he still needs to make a good effort to try them. Also, if he is not hungry at a meal, I certainly don’t force him to eat; but I do make sure he eats something to give him energy to last him until the next meal. Food is fuel and even when the appetite is low for one reason or another, that doesn’t mean we can’t put food in our mouths (except, of course, in cases of illness when eating normally would not be advised). I know I tend to lose my appetite in times of stress, but I still eat normally, even though it may not be as enjoyable to do so.  Following the appetite is important, but we need to use our higher brains too when making food choices because sometimes the appetite isn’t completely reliable – especially when bombarded with sugary, highly processed, “addicting” foods.  

    I’m certainly not saying I’m doing everything right in fostering good eating habits in my children, but I do find it interesting how the brain of a child gives us a glimpse into the adult “animal” brain, which I believe plays a huge role in the development and maintenance of binge eating.  

8 thoughts on “Listen to Your Body?

  1. Wow, I really love this post!! I have had a hard time teaching hunger/fullness to my children. My 5 year old in particular was like Max. I always felt like something wasn’t right in the way I was trying to teach her. Thanks for explaining this so simply so that I can relate it back to my girls.
    I just finished your book and I was blown away by every detail you put in it, yet I never felt confused or lost. I’m so excited because I know deep down that I’ve found the answers through reading your book!

  2. Thanks. I’m so glad you found this post and my book useful:-)

    Fostering good eating habits is difficult enough when kids are young; then add to that the pressure to “diet” when they get a little older, and it can be difficult to know exactly how to guide them. Like anything in parenting – there is no instruction manual; and a lot of it is just about being informed, knowing your child, and doing the best you can.

    It’s nice to hear from other moms out there struggling with similar parenting challenges. I hope your girls find the explanations in this post helpful.

    I wish you all the best.

  3. Sometimes I find it so confusing to listen to my body. I know, it’s because I’ve been “teaching” it those things like binging and purging for so long, but still..I’ve started trying recover by the method you describe in you book very recently. It’s only one week, and I’ve been doing quite well. However, today and the day before I would say I had my little bingies. I think that my “animal” brain is quite smart, actually. Or I just totally forgot how to understand my body…The “animal” brain is now trying to convince me that I’ve been doing so well, I can now control my appetite, so then I can afford myself some biscuits or an ice cream. Well, I believe that I really can control myself and go to the supermarket and buy this kind of food. Then I eat it and I really feel that I can control myself. I eat and think that it’s not a binge, I realise everything, I’m not “blind” as usual, but after that…comes the familiar feeling of guilty and shame. I feel that I didn’t have control, even though at that time I felt that I have it. Could you tell me if you also experienced this, while you were going through the recovery process? Or did I just forget how to understand my body?

    1. I’m truly sorry it’s taken me so long to respond…I sometimes miss comments on older posts. I think a lot people have trouble with the balance between giving up restriction and giving up overeating (the balance between saying “yes” or “no” to tempting food). If you have a history of dieting and restriction, I think it’s better to learn to say yes a little more and not feel guilty about it. Once your body gets the message that you are no longer starving, you aren’t going to crave those treats so much. On the other hand, if you have a history of mostly overeating, then I think gently learning how to say no to extra servings and treats is a good thing. The goal isn’t to banish pleasurable eating completely, but to have a balance that you are comfortable with. Does that make sense?

    2. Yes, I agree with you. It has now become more clear for me, why this happens. My bulimia was a result of anorexia, which means I have a history of dieting and strict food restrictions. I still have some issues with it.

      Thank you so much for your reply. Also, I am so grateful that you wrote this book. It has changed my life in a positive way completely. And I mean not only ED issues.

  4. Same stuff here. “You’re fine! See? You don’t stuff your mouth with food like crazy therefore you don’t binge. You can have another piece of [ any food/ dessert ].” And then I realize I was not really in control at that point. It was more like hestitating. The lines between binge eating and just eating are so blurred for me that I am never really sure about anything around food.

    1. I’m sorry that you are struggling with this as well…see my above response to nastasia. Another tip is setting a “mental limit” before starting to eat a treat-type food. Tell yourself how much you plan on having (whatever seems to be not restrictive but also not overeating…don’t overthink it, just pick a reasonable amount). Then eat that amount, and whatever thoughts come up telling you to eat more, treat those thoughts as neurological junk. Eventually, normal portions and occasional treats will feel normal. I hope that helps!

  5. This post is fantastic! As someone who was introduced to intuitive eating in therapy, I found myself trying not to laugh at similar “my body wants cake” conversations with my little girl. I’ve felt vaguely guilty about setting limits on some foods now that I’ve shifted away from the IE philosophy in many ways and find brain over binge much more effective. But this post makes me feel a lot better because a lot of what you described is what I’ve felt instinctively was right. So thanks. 🙂

Comments are closed.